Daily Mail Weekend, 5th March 2005
Former Young One Rik Mayall ‘died’ for five days after a bike crash, then his best friend announced the end of their comedy partnership. Now he is back with a new TV show but, as Moira Petty finds, this time he has started lying about his age.
Life isn’t easy for an ageing enfant terrible. When Rik Mayall’s longtime comedy partner, Adrian Edmondson, announced recently that the pair were going their separate ways, it was news to Rik. He had appeared alongside his ‘best mate’ in shows spanning four decades of excessive, scatological humour ranging from the anarchic students of The Young Ones to Bottom – with live tours so violently physical that the pair were even hospitalised after one particularly strenuous performance.
Then Edmondson, the husband of Jennifer Saunders, had the cheek to hint that their best days were behind them, declaring, ‘We’re both nearly 50, so it was starting to feel undignified.’
Rik, though, could not be less interested in a graceful descent into his twilight years. ‘What is worrying is that people might infer from that that my career is over. So when Ade said, “There’s no more Bottom,” I said, “Right. I shall write my History of Everything.”‘ This tome, due to be published by HarperCollins in September, is, in fact, his memoirs, and entitled, in deliberately provocative style, Bigger Than Hitler, Better Than Christ.
Whether the contents will prove to be as shocking as the title remains to be seen, as Rik confesses that the title is about all he has penned so far. The blasphemy is a reference to his near-fatal quad bike accident in April 1998 that left him in a five-day coma. ‘So I died for five days and Jesus only died for three days,’ he explains. The mishap left him with severe head injuries which, temporarily, caused impaired memory, shaky co-ordination and language muddles. (It is perhaps an indication of the way his mind works that among the words he mixed up were ‘lesbian’ and ‘pencil’.)
As a counterblast to Edmondson’s notion that they had outgrown the comedy that some called dark and shocking, others puerile, the announcement of Rik’s controversial-sounding autobiography is certainly effective. Does he still find their humour funny? ‘Yes. It rankles a little when people say, “You only do that kind of stuff.” At first he laughs off Edmondson’s statement about the end of their partnership. Did he know what his professional partner was about to say? ‘Not really.’ Has he confronted him? ‘Well, it’s personal, but we had a little chat about it, and it was all smoothed out. He’s doing a bit of farming down in Devon. The last time I saw him, he said, “We’ll get together in a couple of years.” I’m sure when we’re old enough we’ll do The Old Ones. Of course, I don’t want to take away from the drama of it, but we’re not having a trial separation. It’s not like we’re married,’ he says, although he has used the metaphor himself in the past.
Of the two, Rik has always been held to have the stronger solo career. He is due to start filming a peak-time TV comedy by Cold Feet writer Mike Bullen, and this month he is presenting a TV series. Though so much is made of street robberies, gun crime and gang violence, and people talk of a past Golden Age when it was safe to leave the front door unlocked and children could play safely in the park, the series, Violent Nation, traces the history of violence in Britain, pointing out that the most brutal race riot took place not in Bradford in 2000, but in Cardiff in 1919. The biggest ever act of football hooliganism happened not in 2003, but in 1923, and forget about worrying about inner-city gun-on-gun crime – gang violence reached its peak with the Teddy Boys’ switchblade culture in the 1950s. A leading criminologist interviewed for the programme explains that there was more chance of being mugged in central Manchester in 1950 than there is today, and Rik recalls one fact that intrigued him. ‘The murder rate in Oxford in the Middle Ages was so high that if you translated it to London today, it would represent 40,000 deaths a year.’
In one episode, Rik gamely explores 16th century instruments of torture. At the police cadet training centre at Hendon, he allows himself to be handcuffed by a woman police officer who soon has him on his knees. ‘Yes, she was sexy and dominant, but when she pulled the handcuffs in a certain way, my knees buckled under me. It’s hard for you to believe that I wasn’t acting. I think she touched some nerve in my wrist that communicates with the knee.’
Rik had decided to take 2004 off as he had been away for much of the previous year on comedy and theatrical tours. ‘I was going to stay at home and play with the kids. We had A-levels and GCSEs coming up. That was until June, when someone said, “Hey, do you want to be on the telly?”‘ This is his first stint as a documentary presenter. ‘When they said it was about violence I was interested, to be honest.’
We meet in a London hotel. I find Rik leaning against a mantelpiece in the languid manner of a character from a Noel Coward play. (He later tells me that he has just been offered a part in Coward’s Private Lives -‘West End, baby’ – opposite Minnie Driver.) He doesn’t turn around until I walk over and introduce myself. ‘Oh!’ he cries, bottom lip quivering. ‘You spoiled it.’ I think he means that he had been planning to swing round and deliver a jaunty opening line. Rik became a star in his early 20s with other stand-up performers from the Comic Strip venue in the West End. ‘Fame is difficult only when you don’t deserve it. For me, it was putting on a shirt that fitted. I adored fame. It’s what my life was always about, from my schooldays in Droitwich, Worcestershire. I was very good-looking, and so there wasn’t very much difference in the way girls reacted to me after I became famous. There were just more of them, and that suited me.’ Hordes used to follow me around. I’ve always been very heterosexual, and liked women a lot.
There is a mad glint in his eye and an edge to his voice. He is prone to comic exaggeration when the conversation gets too personal. He strides around like a hyperactive child until I beg him to sit down. When he does, he is rather more serious and honest, and totally contradicts himself.
‘I always think I’m going to find interviews difficult and worrying; that I’m going to give away the real person I am,’ he says. ‘I have a much lower opinion of myself than I would ever show. I’m aware of how things will look in print at all times. I’m always surprised at how good-looking people think I am. The truth is that women don’t come on to me, not nearly enough. I have no idea why. If I knew, I’d make myself more approachable.’
Rik has, in fact, been happily married to his wife, Barbara, for nearly two decades. ‘We celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary a few weeks ago. And she was my mistress for five years before that. I hate it when celebrities talk about their happy marriages. I don’t like all this “I believe in fidelity” stuff. I’d hate to set myself up as any kind of moralist. I’m an anarcho-surrealist and I believe in no law, but I do believe in love.’
You have to be nimble on your toes with Rik because he is liable to tell the odd white lie. ‘I’m nearly 46,’ he proclaims. He is already 46, I protest. ‘Oh, all right. You’ve done your research. I’m 47 on March 7. I’ve got 46 on the brain because I’ve been reading Mike Bullen’s script for It Happens, and it keeps saying, “George, 46”. I’m thinking, “Are they doing that to attract me?”‘
He is excited by It Happens [now known as All About George], but worried about how it will affect his standing as a supplier of alternative entertainment. He explains, ‘I’m going to be playing someone who’s a grandpa at my age. He has a huge extended family and his daughter has just had a baby. He has to teach her to change nappies. Jack Shepherd is going to play my father, but I don’t know about the rest of the cast. I’m playing – dare I say this? – a goodie. That’s very hard. I don’t want you saying, “Oh, look, Rik’s becoming a nice, straight, grown-up sell-out.” No! Because playing a goodie is a challenge as an actor.’
While his comedy shows splurge on cartoon-style violence, his series Violent Nation takes a more serious stance on the subject. Has Rik ever been involved in real-life violence himself? He rustles up two incidents. The son of two teachers and the second of four children, Rik took his 11-plus exam at only nine as it was being phased out and success would mean a free place at the fee-paying King’s School in Worcester. He was subsequently the youngest boy there when he arrived a year early. ‘As I walked across the playground, one kid, knowing my surname, yelled, “Fe-Mayall. Hey, Fifi.” I turned around and whack! He hit the ground. He was taken to hospital and lost two teeth, but I didn’t get any more trouble there.’
More recently, he was ‘beaten up by a security man’ after attending a show-business party in London. Rik had intervened in an altercation between the driver of his car and the driver of a van that was blocking the road. ‘The security guard arrived and took a swing at me. I hadn’t done anything. Then Hugh Laurie and some others came running from the party and saved me.’ Rik’s wife had gone to fetch help. ‘I’m surprised she didn’t beat up the security man herself, but it would have spoiled her dress. You don’t mess with Barb. She’s from Glasgow.
‘A long time ago, I was on the road with Ben [Elton, who, along with Edmondson, Rik met at university]. After a show in Newcastle, we went to a nightclub. When Barb went to the toilet, this Geordie lass came up and said, “Ooh, Rik. Aren’t you a nice guy?” Just then a fist appeared in front of my face. It was my wife. She said to the girl, “And you can clear off.”‘
There was one complication when he met Barbara Robbin, who, at the time, was a makeup artist at BBC Scotland. Rik was already in a steady relationship with scriptwriter Lise Mayer, who later became Angus Deayton’s girlfriend. ‘There was a big drama when I got a phone call from Barb, who said, “I’m pregnant.” I said, “I’ll be on the next train”, and we ran away together.’ To complicate matters, Lise had also discovered she was pregnant, but did not in the end carry the child to full term. Rik says he is now on friendly terms with her, but is reluctant to say any more on that subject. ‘It is all down to my daughter, Rosie, who turned 18 last August, that Barb and I are together. Now we’ve got to take her to vote and show her where to put her cross.’ They have two other children, Sidney, 16, and Bonnie, ten. He talks very fondly of his wife. ‘I’m not bragging, but we’re in love.’
His other ‘relationship’, with Edmondson, goes back further, to 1975, when they met on the first day of their Manchester University drama course. ‘There was this kid with really long hair sitting in the lecture theatre with his feet up. The professor came in and I immediately stood up, and Ade laughed uproariously. He was the coolest man in the universe, and I was the biggest twit. He’s more intelligent than me, more rational and attentive. I’m more dreamlike, less controlled. When we write together, I pace and he types, shouting, “Shut up, shut up.” We always agreed that if we came up with a gag that only one of us liked, it was out. It was like two guys mending a car.’
The comic routines he created with Edmondson in the late 1970s, when they were part of the fiveman 20th Century Coyote act, developed into The Dangerous Brothers and then The Young Ones, whose revolting house-sharing students evolved to become the characters in Bottom. But he has done plenty on his own, from TV’s The New Statesman, playing the egregious politician Alan B’Stard, to the Russian classic The Government Inspector at the National Theatre, and Simon Gray’s Cell Mates in the West End (killed off when its star, Stephen Fry, suffering from stage fright, disappeared to Belgium for some days).
His films have included Drop Dead Fred and Churchill: The Hollywood Years, and he played Hitler in a No To The Euro campaign commercial, a performance he judged as satirical but some saw as anti-Semitic. ‘I got into trouble. Questions were asked in Parliament,’ he says with satisfaction. His TV ads for Nintendo were so well paid that he nicknamed his west London house Nintendo Towers.
‘Now look here, I’ve done some big things in my time, but I’ve topped it all by being the Andrex puppy,’ he says. Being the voice of TV’s cutest canine is silly enough not to embarrass him. What pains him is the idea that he might be out of touch. One of the short-lived after-effects of his accident was that he suffered from synaesthesia, a condition in which the senses are confused with each other. ‘I would experience colour when I heard a certain word, for instance, and objects looked as if they were moving around. It was much what I imagine being high on LSD is like.’ Has he ever taken drugs? ‘No, never. I’m too scared. It’s not very rock ‘n’ roll, is it?’
For a while after the accident, Rik sometimes stumbled over his lines on stage. Edmondson once shouted at him, ‘You can’t remember the next bloody line, can you?’ when they were doing their comedy double-act. But it became part of the show. Edmondson’s next rebuke to Rik was, ‘Next time, I’ll sabotage your brakes properly.’
In fact, the accident highlighted a deep-set tenderness between the old friends. His wife later told Rik that Edmondson had sobbed by his hospital bed when he lay unconscious. The one lasting legacy of the quad bike crash, in the grounds of Rik’s holiday home in Devon, is that he is susceptible to epileptic attacks. ‘I have to take medication, but I don’t want to talk about it in case people think I’m not able to work.’ He had one attack at Gatwick Airport in 2000, when flying to Canada to film Kevin Of The North, and just had time to ask a stranger for help before he collapsed. The production company then offered to pay for Rik’s wife to join him. Rik says that nothing as dramatic has happened since.
Through his tribulations, his ability to shock has not deserted him. During his time off last year, he co-authored a 13-part comedy series, The Murderers, starring a psychotic, very English killer called Eustace, a part he would like to play himself. ‘He’s foul, hypocritical, a ball of vanity. I put into the characters I create myself parts of my own personality that embarrass me. My characters are all vain and self-obsessed. That’s how you exorcise those traits. Self-obsession is the Achilles heel that my family use on me. “Oh, Dad, stop talking about yourself.”‘
Eustace, he says, is a character ‘to the max’. Rik showed the script to Granada International TV executive Paul Jackson, who screened The Young Ones and Bottom. ‘He told me, “Rik, this is fantastic, but I don’t know where I’m going to sell it. It’s just a bit too extreme.” That’s the first time that has happened to me. Twenty years ago, it would have been on the TV like that,’ he says, with a click of his fingers. He is looking forward to starring in Private Lives on the stage. ‘Coward suits me. I have the same rhythm of speech. He also wanted to shock people with things that were dangerous and untypical of what was on the stage at the time.’ Unlike Edmondson, Rik will not be retiring to tend his country acres. ‘Working is my life. I live for it. It’s about getting out of my head and being someone else. Working live is like sex. You lead your audience on, guide them, respond to them, sense and smell them, and give them slightly more than they expected.
‘Actually,’ he says, with one of his impish smiles, ‘it’s probably better than sex.’